By Marquart Doty and Berri Wilmore
“We have to provide a safe place, where someone can feel comfortable enough to have a long conversation about their issues, in order to hear their own answers…”
-Dedra Layne, Director, Safe Streets Baltimore
We are constantly told that violence among youth in our urban neighborhoods is an “epidemic.”
So what if someone followed up on that idea, and treated violence just that way – as a very serious disease, but one that can be cured?
This is the model of Safe Streets Baltimore, an innovative program that uses community-based “interrupters” to anticipate outbreaks of violence, like revenge shootings, and works with potential perpetrators to resolve potentially violent episodes through mediation. The goal is to treat violence as a curable disease by identifying it, detecting the symptoms and how it spreads, intervening to address the symptoms and figuring out how to stop them, therefore altering the course of the disease, and in effect, curing it.
Safe Streets Baltimore hires people from the community who have violent backgrounds themselves and want to fix the problems that, in the past, they helped to create. They get involved in situations where violence has been used or is likely and either help the situation come to a non-violent close, or prevent violence from being used in the future.
The focus is on 14 to 24-year-olds, as well as older adults who regularly carry weapons. These groups, Safe Streets Baltimore has found, are at greatest risk for committing violence and are also most often the target of violence, for revenge or other reasons, because of drug dealing and gang activity. While on the job, it is not unusual for interrupters to meet a “homeboy” they knew on a personal level before he became involved in drugs, gangs and the criminal justice system.
The program began in 2007 and now operates out of offices in Park Heights, McElderry Park, Sandtown and Cherry Hill. Appropriately, Safe Streets Baltimore is funded by Baltimore’s Health Department, a recognition that urban youth violence is a health problem as well as a law and justice issue.
As interrupters, Safe Streets Baltimore seeks to use people from those neighborhoods who were once a catalyst for violence (i.e. drug dealers and gang members) but have decided that they want to make a change in the communities that they, at one point, had a hand in degrading.
The goal is to recruit people with “street cred.”
“You can’t go in the hood, and just start intervening,” says J.T. Timpson, a veteran interrupter who, with two colleagues, spoke with the Urban Health Media Project.
Timpson, and his colleagues Dedra Layne and Dante Barksdale, described how they go about their jobs.
A day as a violence interrupter includes a lot of community interaction. First, they go through a briefing process: talking about the issues in the community, where violence might happen, where it has happened, and what needs to be done throughout the day. Then, they canvass their areas, talking to community members about what’s been going on, walking around, and, overall, gauging the situation
Next, they do what needs to be done! Whether it be hanging around corners where conflicts are taking place, spreading awareness about the importance of peace after a shooting happens, or just talking to people, violence interrupters are always out in their community helping.
Violence interrupters live in the communities they help, so they’re essentially on call 24/7. Within 72 hours of a shooting, the interrupters have begun community outreach. Barksdale’s reasoning: “In that situation, the victim and perpetrator are one in the same.” The community suffers every time a gunshot goes off somewhere in the neighborhood, which is a point that Safe Streets Baltimore uses to make its case even more compelling.
Beyond ending violence that begets violence, Safe Streets Baltimore’s workers are committed to work to change the conditions that allow the epidemic to flourish. Barksdale spoke about the need for basic necessities. A lack of food, shelter, and clothing can easily lead to a life of crime, violence, and substance abuse. Safe Streets seeks to intervene and provide recourse for at-risk individuals. Family members who are left homeless because a member of their family is charged with a felony, adults being rendered unemployed because they do not have access to their birth certificate or Social Security number, and young people becoming addicted to drugs because the students in their 8th grade classes are 17 and 18 year old drug dealers.
In response to a question, Barksdale detailed his views on how the level of segregation in Baltimore influences violence. He said that in a lot of high-income areas, there are resources devoted to finding kids things to occupy their time with, like sports. Barksdale said that “those same resources need to be in our communities.” He felt that when you give kids resources to entertain themselves, anger will fade away. Those resources aren’t being put in our communities, so anger has nowhere to go.
Citing his own experience, Barksdale noted that when you’re in a culture of violence, it’ll become normalized, and you’ll buy into it, and even become excited by it.
“You’re not in fear when it excites you,” he said. “Kids have bought into a way of survival – and that’s what you see – kids surviving.”
He said that that since everyone buys into it, “everyone is gonna feel the wrath of what’s going on in the streets.”
Still, Safe Streets Baltimore workers are optimistic, and believe that their model of mediation can be used to improve conditions in Baltimore’s schools. Barksdale said that “in Baltimore, if you expel kids for fighting, you won’t have a school, because everybody fights.” Layne added that “students feel isolated and unsupported.” The interrupters believe that with proper mediation and support to deal with issues so that they don’t spill out into the streets, street issues won’t spill into schools.
Meanwhile, Safe Streets Baltimore’s new solutions are achieving some success in the long struggle against the violence epidemic. This spring, Sandtown-Winchester, marked its 213th day without a homicide.
The interrupters were there, as the community put on a neighborhood celebration.
Contributing: Asha Davis, Dominique Waters